Of Lit­tle­hamp­ton

DREAMI DREAM­ING On his de­but visit to the coastal town Clive Agran learns about Ian Flem­ing, Ron­nie Barker and the seafront’s long­est bench

Sussex Life - - Front Page -

De­spite the wel­come win­ter sun­shine, my first-ever visit to Lit­tle­hamp­ton isn’t get­ting off to the best of starts – I can’t find the coun­cil of­fices where I’m sup­posed to be meet­ing my es­corts. The hand­some, white, mid-19th cen­tury Manor House that Lit­tle­hamp­ton Town Coun­cil oc­cu­pies is far more el­e­gant than the dull mu­nic­i­pal block I was look­ing for. In­side there’s an­other sur­prise, a de­light­ful mu­seum.

Terry El­lis, chair­man of Lit­tle­hamp­ton Her­itage Group, and Mal­colm Belcham­ber, a four­time mayor, have kindly agreed to show me around town. Since time is limited and our com­bined age is 225 or there­abouts, we’re not walk­ing on this oc­ca­sion but climb into Terry’s car in­stead.

Whereas Mal­colm, a re­tired es­tate agent, has lived in Lit­tle­hamp­ton all his life, Terry is a com­par­a­tive new­comer. To­gether with his wife, he spent two years scour­ing the south-east of Eng­land in search of the ideal place to live and firmly be­lieves he’s found his Shangri-la.

Our first stop is un­sched­uled. As Terry points to a Dal­ma­tian dog scratch­ing at the first-floor win­dow of a ter­raced house (bear with me if you will), Mal­colm spots the owner feed­ing seag­ulls by the har­bour wall op­po­site. Leav­ing aside the de­sir­abil­ity of oth­er­wise of this ac­tiv­ity, it’s im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent that Alan Mckay is a real char­ac­ter. The three mag­nif­i­cent classic cars parked out­side his house, along­side which the three of us feel gen­uinely youth­ful, con­firm my ini­tial as­sess­ment of Alan as, at least, mildly ec­cen­tric.

De­spite a mild clash with the au­thor­i­ties over the clam­ber­ing ca­nine, Alan is an­other huge fan of Lit­tle­hamp­ton. “It’s an old­fash­ioned, fam­ily-friendly, sea­side re­sort,” he re­marks above the din of squawk­ing seag­ulls.

Terry takes the car as Mal­colm and I cross over the foot­bridge. It’s partly re­tractable, slides back when a ship passes on the River Arun be­low and re­placed the pre­vi­ous swing bridge in 1973. A new fixed bridge was built half-amile up­stream that greatly eased traf­fic con­ges­tion that Mal­colm re­calls be­ing “pretty dread­ful” on a sunny sum­mer Sun­day.

Nei­ther of my com­pan­ions are golfers and so I don’t bother telling them that the course now on our right is the old­est in West Sus­sex or that the leg­endary JH Tay­lor helped de­sign it. The open­ing of the swing bridge in 1908 in­creased its ac­ces­si­bil­ity and pre­sented a cou­ple of en­ter­pris­ing lo­cal boat­men – Jimmy and Peachey – with an op­por­tu­nity to cash in by un­der­cut­ting the bridge toll with a bar­gain ‘tup­peny re­turn’.

Next to the beach is what re­mains of Lit­tle­hamp­ton Fort, which was built in 1854 to thwart a pos­si­ble French in­va­sion. A com­bi­na­tion of changes in ar­ma­ment tech­nol­ogy and a re­ced­ing threat from the other side of the Chan­nel soon ren­dered the fort re­dun­dant and in 1891 the guns were re­moved and it was mostly de­mol­ished. Un­con­nected with any pos­si­ble re­sump­tion of post-brexit, cross-chan­nel hos­til­ity, ef­forts are un­der­way to at least par­tially re­store it.

Dur­ing World War II, Lit­tle­hamp­ton was a cen­tre for air/sea res­cue pa­trols and the lo­cal boat­yards turned their skills to pro­duc­ing land­ing craft. West Beach, which is where we are now, was used by Al­lied troops for mock land­ings and in 1944 ships sailed from Lit­tle­hamp­ton on D-day. And Lit­tle­hamp­ton was the se­cret cen­tre of covert op­er­a­tions car­ried out by 30 As­sault Unit. Formed by Com­man­der Ian Flem­ing, the unit had its head­quar­ters in Sel­bourne Road. Flem­ing fre­quently stayed in the Beach Ho­tel (now an apart­ment block) and re­laxed in the nearby Ma­rine pub. As well as help­ing to win the war, Flem­ing was also gath­er­ing ma­te­rial for his later ca­reer as author of the James Bond nov­els.

The town’s con­sid­er­able con­tri­bu­tion to the war ef­fort is per­haps more clearly per­son­i­fied in Jef­frey Quill, who lived in 9 South Ter­race. Only the sec­ond per­son ever to fly a Spit­fire, he left the RAF in Jan­uary 1936 to join Vick­ers as as­sis­tant to the chief test pi­lot. Three months later and three weeks af­ter its maiden flight, he flew a Spit­fire for the first time be­fore tak­ing over the fol­low­ing year as its chief test pi­lot.

Fol­low­ing the fall of France, he

re­mark­able and, if the re­views are to be be­lieved, so is the food.

An­other cu­rios­ity stretches right the way along the mag­nif­i­cent prom­e­nade from the café al­most to the har­bour mouth. Dip­ping, twist­ing and turn­ing as it goes, the aptly named Long Bench is 1,000ft long and can ac­com­mo­date more than 300 peo­ple si­mul­ta­ne­ously sit­ting on it. A cou­ple of hun­dred of the re­cy­cled hard­wood slats are of­fi­cially en­graved with mes­sages and mem­o­ries. It costs £150 to have one done and the pro­ceeds go to a wor­thy char­ity, the Ald­ing­bourne Trust.

On the sub­ject of money, a gen­er­ous do­na­tion by the fam­ily of Anita Rod­dick largely paid for the bench.

The founder of The Body Shop was born and raised in Lit­tle­hamp­ton where her Ital­ian par­ents ran an ice-cream par­lour and, de­spite the op­por­tu­nity to ‘up­grade’, chose to stay liv­ing in their orig­i­nal home.

The Body Shop still has a town of­fice that looks af­ter Europe, the Mid­dle East and Africa.

If Anita Rod­dick is the town’s

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